Robert Gates and Leadership

Robert Gates has spent forty-six years in the service of the United States via the  Air Force, the CIA, the White House and since 2006, as the Secretary of Defense. He retires from public service at the end of June.  On May 27 Gates gave the commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy and spoke on six qualities of leadership.  His insights on leadership are not restricted  to those young midshipmen. They are words of wisdom for anyone in the arena of leadership in the 21st century, including pastors and laity.

The following are excerpts from his remarks.  For a PDF of the entire speech, click here.

I have served under eight presidents and had the opportunity to observe many other great leaders along the way. From this experience I have learned that real leadership is a rare and precious commodity, and requires qualities that many people might possess piecemeal to varying degrees, but few exhibit in total. As you start your careers as leaders today, I would like to offer some brief thoughts on those qualities.

For starters, great leaders must have vision – the ability to get your eyes off your shoelaces at every level of rank and responsibility, and see beyond the day-to-day tasks and problems. To be able to look beyond tomorrow and discern a world of possibilities and potential. How do you take any outfit to a higher level of excellence? You must see what others do not or cannot, and then be prepared to act on your vision.

An additional quality necessary for leadership is deep conviction. True leadership is a fire in the mind that transforms all who feel its warmth, that transfixes all who see its shining light in the eyes of a man or woman. It is a strength of purpose and belief in a cause that reaches out to others, touches their hearts, and makes them eager to follow.

Self-confidence is still another quality of leadership. Not the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see and read about all the time. Rather, it is the quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success. The ability to stand in the shadow and let others receive attention and accolades. A leader is able to make decisions but then delegate and trust others to make things happen. This doesn’t mean turning your back after making a decision and hoping for the best. It does mean trusting in people at the same time you hold them accountable. The bottom line: a self-confident leader doesn’t cast such a large shadow that no one else can grow.

A further quality of leadership is courage: not just the physical courage of the seas, of the skies and of the trenches, but moral courage. The courage to chart a new course; the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular; the courage to stand alone; the courage to act; the courage as a military officer to “speak truth to power.” In most academic curricula today, and in most business, government, and military training programs, there is great emphasis on team-building, on working together, on building consensus, on group dynamics.  But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time will inevitably come when you must  stand alone. When alone you must say, “This is wrong” or “I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.” Don’t kid yourself –that takes real courage.

Another essential quality of leadership is integrity. Without this, real leadership is not possible. Nowadays, it seems like integrity – or honor or character – is kind of quaint, a curious, old-fashioned notion. We read of too many successful and intelligent people in and out of government who succumb to the easy wrong rather than the hard right – whether from inattention or a sense of entitlement, the notion that rules are not for them. But for a real leader, personal virtues – self-reliance, self control, honor, truthfulness, morality – are absolute. These are the building blocks of character, of integrity – and only on that foundation can real leadership be built.

A final quality of real leadership, I believe, is simply common decency: treating those around you – and, above all, your subordinates – with fairness and respect. An acid test of leadership is how you treat those you outrank, or as President Truman once said, “how you treat those who can’t talk back.”Whatever your military specialty might be, use your authority over others for constructive purposes, to help them – to watch out and care for them and their families, to help them improve their skills and advance, to ease their hardships whenever possible. All of this can be done without compromising discipline or mission or authority. Common decency builds respect and, in a democratic society, respect is what prompts people to give their all for a leader, even at great personal sacrifice.

Above all, remember that the true measure of leadership is not how you react in times of peace or times without peril. The true measure of leadership is how you react when the wind leaves your sails, when the tide turns against you.  At some point along your path, you will surely encounter failure or disappointment of one kind or another. Nearly all of us have. If at those times you hold true to your standards, then you will always succeed, if only in knowing you stayed true and honorable. In the final analysis, what really matters are not the failures and disappointments themselves, but how you respond.

The qualities of leadership I have described this morning do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities. These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you have made here at the Academy and will make early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service.

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